Watch the webinar
We were joined by the CBI’s own Chief UK Policy Director, Matthew Fell, as well as by two fantastic guests: Audrey O’Mahony, Talent & Organisation Lead for Financial Services at Accenture, and Paul Bolt, Chief Marketing Officer for Microsoft UK.
Our main subject was a broad and important one – the challenges and opportunities created by our new working practices – although we also ranged into some other areas. Here are the five key takeaways:
- More progress on the government’s Job Retention Scheme (JRS)
- The new normal
- How to handle employee relations issues
- Ways of communicating
- Security and privacy.
More progress on the JRS
As Matthew pointed out at the very beginning of his remarks, the backdrop to today’s webinar is the expectation that, later on, the government will confirm a three-week extension to the current lockdown.
This makes some of the questions that the CBI has been asking about the JRS even more urgent. For example, there’s the big one we’ve been highlighting practically every day: will the scheme be extended beyond the end of May? Businesses need to know the answer to this before 18th April, when the 45-day consultation period for redundancies is due to come into effect. If the government does indeed decide to extend the JRS beyond the end of May, businesses may not be forced into making those difficult decisions now.
But there has been some progress on JRS, even in the last 24 hours. Yesterday, there was, as Matthew put it, “a helpful update on eligibility cut-offs” – according to which, businesses can now claim for furloughed employees who were employed on or before 19th March, rather than the previous cut-off date of 28th February. This could help thousands more people to keep their jobs.
And Jim Harra, the civil servant at the top of HMRC, has confirmed that the online JRS portal, due to be launched on 20th April, has been rigorously tested and has even sent out its first few payments to companies.
The new normal
As a measure of how much our working practices have changed over the past month, Paul brought some figures direct from Microsoft. On 31st March, just one day, the total collective time spent on Microsoft’s digital conferencing platform, Teams, was 2.7 billion minutes, which was 200% higher than the previous peak – and, said Paul, “the volume of people using that platform, continues to grow and grow and grow”.
Paul also revealed that 47% of all Teams calls in the UK now use video, “a 100% increase on where the UK was a month ago”.
Audrey added that many of Accenture’s clients regard this period of change as one of great challenge – but also of great opportunity. “This crisis creates an opportunity for rapid change in a business,” she explained. “There is a window to accelerate a lot of change… including around digital transformation.”
Businesses should think deeply about which of the new working practices are, well, working, which aren’t, and which should be retained for after the crisis.
Employee relations issues
No two employees are the same – and that will be highlighted over the coming weeks and months. As Matthew pointed out, many businesses already face “employee relations issues between the haves and the have-nots; those who can work from home and those who cannot”. Properly managing that divide is going to become even more crucial as businesses begin to reopen in “stages and steps”, with some employees kept at home longer than others.
But it’s not just about the actual jobs that people do; it’s also about their temperaments and situations. According to Audrey, 20% of people who work from home – in normal times – find it extremely difficult to switch off from their work. A similar proportion suffers from some form of loneliness while working from home. Businesses have a “duty of care” to these people, and, indeed, to all of their employees.
The best way to manage all of these issues, our three panelists agreed, is communication. “Be careful and considerate to people’s needs,” Audrey said, from working patterns to childcare responsibilities – and accommodate them accordingly.
Ways of communicating
One of our audience members asked: is there a risk of overcommunicating? Again, said Audrey, it “probably requires a bit of judgement” and consideration of employees’ differences. She went on to advocate “communication with a purpose: to connect with people, to really listen to people, rather than just sticking another hour in their diaries.”
Matthew recommended “mixing it up a bit” – not just the formal, regular, all-staff calls but also “informal chats” and “online tea” in the spirit of the less business-y moments we normally enjoy in the workplace. In that vein, Paul revealed that his team has a virtual pub quiz every Friday, “with gin and tonics”.
Security and privacy
Another audience member asked about security and the risks of using different platforms. “This is a question that should weigh on people’s minds,” said Paul, “hugely.”
“What it really comes down to,” he added, “is – what is the technology stack of choice?” He explained that businesses will make this commitment, to the software and hardware they use, based on a number of considerations, including security and privacy but also factors such as ease of implementation and innovation. The crucial thing now, when it comes to protecting privacy and security, is to make sure that this technology is “rolled out and used by every [employee]…. This isn’t the time for anyone to go rogue.”
Paul also said that this could offer another opportunity to businesses: “to understand their technology stack, understand the implications of that technology stack and how it works.”
Key questions we answered:
- What are you hearing from business about the challenges of working from home?
- Many businesses are having to adapt to new ways of working in lockdown.
- For some, this means building on existing infrastructure, for others this means introducing entirely new systems and practices.
- Employee engagement is always central to the success of change programmes – truer than ever now, against the backdrop of heightened uncertainty.
- CBI members have repeatedly stressed that their people are their priority during this crisis – reflected by a large proportion of the comments and questions coming in. For example:
- What is the best approach for firms that have little to no history of remote working?
- What steps can employers take to support workers who now have childcare pressures?
- Can employers continue to engage and support furloughed staff?
- And how best can we support managers?
- CBI research suggests that effective line management is perhaps the most important driver of employee engagement and productivity – this has not been changed by COVID-19.
- What are some examples of good remote working practices you are hearing?
- A lot of best practice is anchored around 3 things: flexibility, effective communication, and supporting wellbeing.
- And we have heard some great examples:
- A large power systems company have had mindfulness experts joining internal company webinars
- An international soft drinks business is running coffee mornings, quizzes, etc – including furloughed staff (to keep in touch without doing any work).
- One tech company has offered guidance tailored to staff with caring responsibilities – encouraging colleagues to be understanding of different working practices (e.g. ‘don’t expect email responses straight away from these colleagues’).
- Others have started internal talks and webinars to keep workers engaged and help them to focus on personal development.
- At the CBI, we are also trying to follow these principles.
- With weekly all-staff video calls.
- Launching a mental health app for staff, in partnership with the NHS, and government bodies.
- Weekly online training seminars – on everything from wellbeing to remote team management.
- And we are passionate champions of flexible working, whether in times of crisis or otherwise – a real lifeline for parents, carers, and one of the main ways to make your workplace inclusive.
- What innovations have we seen during this crisis, that we might want to continue long-term?
- As we start to look ahead to the post-crisis recovery, it is a good time to be thinking about the impact that flexible working could have at scale.
- Given the current widescale shift to working from home, many firms are telling us that flexibility does not necessarily come with trade-offs in terms of engagement or productivity, as they had previously feared, and many are planning to incorporate remote working into their normal business models.
- Firms are also saying their communication levels have skyrocketed – with normal contact replaced by WhatsApp groups, digital coffee breaks, etc.
- It’s important to balance these positive innovations with other stories that we’re hearing of people working longer hours and feeling unable to ‘switch off’ during increased crisis workloads.
- Post-crisis, employers should actively provide guidance and assistance in this area to support workers as well as just allowing more flex on hours.
- We have also heard that firms are thinking about the way that less commuting could help to support their ‘green strategies’.
- And some are starting to think about providing employees with equipment to work from home more effectively – and wondering whether there could be government incentives for this in the long term.
- What have the last few weeks revealed to you regarding how well prepared we were for the spike in people working from home?
- From a Microsoft perspective, on 31 March we released numbers to show the volume of minutes of meetings happening on the Microsoft Teams platform.
- On that day, we saw 2.7 billion minutes of meetings in one day.
- 47% of all Microsoft Teams calls in the UK now use video which is a 100% increase on where the UK was a month ago.
- From a cloud perspective, clearly that capacity needs to be managed.
- Last month, Netflix announced it had a 25% reduction in its streaming quality in the UK, which gives you an example about the importance of managing broadband capacity.
- What have you learned about managing productivity for employees working from home during this period?
- This crisis creates an opportunity for rapid change in a business. There is a window to accelerate digital transformation in your business.
- The mental needs of your workforce are really important during this time. This idea of your home being your permanent place of work is very challenging. For many of us, home is a restorative location, not a place for work.
- For your work and private life to take place in one building can be mentally challenge.
- 20% of people who work remotely express an inability to switch off. This makes it difficult for employees to create the lines between work and rest.
- 20% of people also suffer from loneliness when working from home. So, an agenda-free virtual connecting session can be very important to retain the mental health of your workforce.
- What security risks are there resulting from organisations shifting to home working?
- This is a very important consideration for businesses. It is also important to note privacy when working on digital platforms.
- Making sure the technology your organisation adopts is rolled out and used by its employees is important. Consistency across your firm makes it easier to manage the security of it.
- This is not the time for employees to download their own software as that places organisations, and their data, at higher risk.
- We are seeing an increase in phishing attack on individuals working from home.
- How can firms support staff who will face challenges working from home such as caring responsibilities, childcare or inappropriate accommodation?
- Regarding childcare and home-schooling, there is not a silver bullet for that issue.
- Parents are looking for empathy, compassion, and patience from their leaders.
- This includes an understanding of the challenges they face parenting and working simultaneously.
- Employers should make sure they are asking what suits their employees best during this time. For example, it could involve shifting their usual working patterns to suit them and enabling proper flexible working.